CRIME AND JUSTICE Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval London plea false arrest imprisonment prison conditions miscarriage justice harbouring sheriff
Subject: Complaint of unjust arrest and imprisonment
Original source: Corporation of London Records Office, Misc. Roll AA, m.6
Transcription in: Helena Chew and Martin Weinbaum, eds. The London Eyre of 1244, London Record Society, vol.6 (1970), 98.
Original language: Latin
Location: London
Date: 1244


Richard de Totenasse lays a complaint that on the night of Friday, 8 January [1244], when he was in his house in London, behaving peaceably, there came to his house from the house of Hugh Blund the sheriff: Hugh's brother William Goldsmith, Hugh's sergeant Jordan, Hugh's beadle John Shep, Hugh's clerks Ralph and John, John the clerk son of a capmaker, Adam the servant of Thomas de Stanes, Adam's brother Peter, Philip de Enefeud, Simon Vintner of Milk Street, and John de Haneford. They used force to break down the door of his house and to seize and tie up his boy-servant. After which they came to the door of his room, broke it down, dragged him out by the feet onto the staircase leading to the solar, and beat him severely about the body and on the soles of his feet, giving him a wound in the head. After that they used his belt to tie his hands behind his back and [led him] ignominiously through the streets by night to Newgate, Hugh being present and ordering it. There they first stripped him of his possessions and then put him in the deepest part of the prison, [dressed] only in his undershirt, forcing him to sit bare-bottomed upon the broom-swept ground, loading him down with irons and putting him in the stocks. In this fashion they held him in gaol for three days and three nights, in breach of the king's peace. He was not allowed to obtain bail, nor to have any food brought in or any friends visit him, until the king's justices for gaol delivery set him free, on the grounds that he was a clerk of the archdeacon of London. Following his release, he gave the gaoler 4d., and gave Hugh 6d. for three days keep of Richard's horse, which he [i.e. Hugh] had caused to be taken from his house that night. Hugh comes but the others do not. Hugh denies the force and injury and that anything contravened the king's peace. He says that Richard's wife Beatrice is a harbourer of thieves, and he had been given to understand that thieves were lodging there that night. When he sent his deputies to arrest those thieves, they arrived at the house and could not obtain free entry, so they broke down the door; they found in the house a great fire, Richard, his wife and his boy-servant being present in the house. Because Richard refused to act peaceably or to find a guarantor [for good behaviour], but drew his sword and cut off two fingers of one of the deputies, etc.


The outcome of this case is not recorded in the roll, so we do not know whether Richard de Totnes did, by resisting authority, provoke his harsh treatment, or whether the manhandling, beating and close confinement was reasonably typical in arrests. The defence against Richard's charge is not so much that he has exaggerated the violence of the arrest, but rather that the action taken was official (hence it is Hugh, as sheriff, who answers) and not unjust. Complaints about imprisonment are not uncommon in eyre records, it being part of the eyre's purpose to check into abuses of authority, but this case seems to have been an extreme. In its broad strokes, however, it paints a useful picture of police procedure.

It appears that Hugh put together a posse comprising his own shrievalty staff together with a few other citizens. That to effect the arrest he required such a large group and put it in charge of his brother (we may hypothesize from William being named first in the list), rather than his sergeant, may suggest that Hugh was anticipating problems. Hugh judiciously stayed out of harm's way until Richard and his household were subdued. Whether Hugh's defence that thieves were believed to be in the house was accurate or not cannot be judged, since the domestic confusion and Richard's resistance to arrest seem to have deflected the original purpose of the raid.

It may be noted that John Shep was apparently promoted to sheriff's sergeant later in the year, but was forced to flee the city, and was outlawed, after having arrested a man on suspicion of homicide, then flinging him so violently into the Newgate dungeon that he broke his neck.

Note also that prisoners often relied on family and friends, or even passers-by, to supply them with foods and other comforts while in prison. Richard's payment to the gaoler was likely for food and perhaps other comforts.



An upper chamber of a house, usually the parlour and/or bedroom of the tenant. The staircase may have been inside or outside the house; possibly the landing at the top of the staircase is where the beating took place.

"beat him"
The beating described was probably by kicking.

As one of the sturdy gates on the western side of the fortifications around London, Newgate was a logical location for a city gaol of modest capacity.

Why Richard included in his deposition the point that the prison floor had been swept clean is uncertain, unless it was to emphasize the coldness of the floor, cleared of sawdust or other scrapings that might perhaps have offered some small protection.

"he was a clerk"
Richard claimed "benefit of clergy" to escape prison: that he was in holy orders and any charges against him should be tried in an ecclesiastical court.

I.e. he was arrested.

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Created: August 18, 2001. Last update: November 23, 2002 © Stephen Alsford, 2001-2003